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Juan Gonzalez


California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 14, 2001
Latest update: March 15, 2001

Excerpt from Harvest of Empire:
A History of Latinos in America

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, March 2001. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This essay is based on Juan Gonzalez' Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Penguin Books. 2000. ISBN: 0-14 02.5539 7 (pbk.) $15 at Vroman's in Pasadena. Section on Why We Came starts on p. 82.

I have copied a short excerpt here for you to get a sense of the story of injustice that comes from many of the texts we read. I did not order Harvest of Empire for criminology, but that was because there were already so many choices. I did order copies of it in the bookstore for the moot court class, in which one of the assignments was to read a text which gives the intimate feeling of what injustice looks like in the real world. This excerpt fits so well with our concerns in criminology theory that I wanted you to read at least this small piece. If this intrigues you, you are welcome to substitute Harvest of Empire as one of your readings for this course.

Why We Came

Source: Harvest of Empire, pp. 82 and ff.

"One morning in May 1932, road workers found chief engineer Teofilo Gonzalez, my grandfather, feverish and delirious at their work camp on Puerto Rico's soutwest coast. He died a few days later of penumonia, and his death immediately plunged his young wife, Maria Gonzalez Toledo, and their six children into abject poverty. [Footnote omitted.]

"My grandmother had married Teofilo in 1914 in the mountain town of Lares. She was sixteen at the time, an orphan, illiterate, and desperate to escape from her Sapnish-born godmother, who had raised her as a virtual servant. Her new husband was thirt-four, well eductaed, and the eldest son of a prosperous coffee grower whose own parents had migrated to Lares from the Spanish island of Majorca in the late 1850s.

"Puerto Rican criollosresented the Majorcan peninsulares who quicly bought up the businesses in Lares and rarely employed the town's native-born residents. [Fn. omitted.] The majorcans were loyal to the spanish Crown, while Lares was a hotbed of separatist and abolitionist sentiment.On September 23, 1868, El Grito de Lares erupted. It was the most significant independence revolt in island historoy. My grandfather's parents, Teofilo Gonzalez, Sr., and Arelia Levi, were only teenagers then, but they cheered the spanish soldiers who quickly crushed the rebellion. To quell further unrest, Spain's Cortes abolished slavery on the island in 1873, but my great-grandparents, like many of the samll coffee farmers in the region, circumvented the emancipation decree and illegally kept a few black laborers on their farm as semislaves. This infriated their youngest son, Onofre, who soon turned into a political dissident opposed to Spanish rule.

"According to family legend, my great-grandparents scoffed at Onofre and called him a crazed idealist. They were still ridiculing him when the Spanish-American War erupted and U.S. soldiers landed at Guanica. Soon after, Onofre stole several of his father's horses and rode south to volunteer his services to the Yankee invaders. He returned after a few weeks, proudly galloping into Lares as the lead scout for a column of U.S, soldiers. [Fn. omitted.]

"That early military occupation, as we have seen, quickly disillusioned even its Puerto Rican supporters. It wrecked the small coffee and tobacco growers who were the backbone of the island's economy. U.S. sugar companies gobbled up the land and created a vast agricultural proletariat whose members only worked a few months of the year. For the multitudes of poor, life became unbearable. 'I have stopped at farm after farm, where lean, underfed women and sickly men repeated again and again the same story---little food and no opportunity to get more." [Fn. omitted.] Theoddore Rossevelt, Jr., governor of the island for a time, wrote in 1929.

"During those desperate years, Maria and Teofilo Gonzalz lost five of their eleven chidren to disease. Still, they were in better shape than most, thanks to his job building roads for the government. After her husband's death in 1932, though, the family's fortunes plummeted. Maria sold the big house they owned in the sourthern coastal city of Ponce and moved to a squalid shack in El Ligao, the worst section of the Mayor Cantera slum high in the hills of town. She found work as an aide in Ponce's Tricoche Hospital and occasionally as a coffee bean picker in the fields near Lares.

"But the odd jobs could not provide enough money to suppport a large family, so she reluctantly gave several of her children away to friends in hopes of saving them from starvation. Her oldest daughter, my aunt Graciela, she placed with neighbors who owned a local store, and there the girl worked behind the counter in return for food and board. She sent another girl, my aunt Ana, to live with a neighbor as a housekeeper. She dispatched one son, my uncle Sergio, to live with a childless school-teacher.

"But her two youngest, my aunt Pura and my father, Pepe, were too young to be useful to anyone, so she placed six-year-old Pepe in an orphanage. the day she left him with the nuns at the orphanage, his terrified wails almost crushed her heart. Her guild was so great that after a few years, she reclaimed hi from the nuns and sent him to live with another childless teacher. But the teacher sexually abused Pepe for years, turning him into a sullen and explosive alcoholic. Throughout the rest of his life there was such aimless rage buried inside him that whenever he drank heavily, he would always recite the story of how his mother had abandoned him.

"Pura, the only one left at home, became her mother's constant companion---the other children were permitted to visit their mother only a few Sundays a month. Maria dragged the little girl with her everywhere. She hid her under the sink in the hospital whenever the supervisors appeared; in the fields, she would tie a can around Pura's neck and show her how to pluch the covvee beans with her tiny fingers. The psychological scars left in all of them by their long childhood separation were so deep that decades later, after they'd all been reunited and the family had moved to New York City, the Gonzalez brothers and sisters never spoke openly of those times.

"the 1930's were the most turbulent in Puerto Rico's modern history, and Ponce, where my family had settled, was the center of the storm. The Depression turned the island into a social inferno even more wretched than Haiti today. As one visitor described it:

"Slow and sometimes rapid, starvation was found everywhere. If one drove a car over the country roads, one was delayed again and again by sorrowing funeral processions carrying the caskets of dead infants.

"Most of the citis were infested by "wolf gangs" of children ranging in ages from six to sixteen, many of whom had no idea who their parents were. They pilfered and robbed; they "protected" parked automobiles, and if the drivers didn't want to pay for such protection, they siphoned gasoline out of tanks, stole hub caps, slashed tires. They slep where they could---in parks, in hallways, in alleys. [Fn. omittted.]

"Ponce's hilltop El Ligao was notorious for its violence and crime. Neighbors of ten feuded and brutal killings in machete or knife fights were commonplace. One day, Pura Gonzalez watched in horror as a young resident name Saro, who sold ice in a small pushcart, was dragged bleeding through the dirt street in front of her house by four men who brazenly hanged him from a tree, stabbed, and castrated him. Saro, she disscovered, was a numbers runner. An important town official had placed a bet with him, but when the number hit and the official came to collect his money, he discovered Saro had blown it all on liquor. As a lesson to El Ligao, the official ordered Saro's public execution.

"Ponce was, at the same time, Puerto Rico's most prosperous and cultured city. It was the center of the island's Nationalist movement, whose presitent was Pedro Albizu Campos. Albizu graduated from Harvard in 1916, served in the U.S. Navy, and spent years traveling throughout Latin America. In 1932, he returned to his homelant and assumed the party's leadership. A chaismatic speaker and devout Catholic, Albizu wasted no time tapping into the country's long-felt frustration over U.S. control, and soon took to propagating an almost mystical brand of anti-Yankee, anti-Protestant nationalism.

"By the time of Allbizu's return from abroad, the greed of the U.S. sugar plantations had created a social tinderbox. Wages for cane cutters, which had been 63 cents for a twelve-hour day in 1917, were down to 50 cents by 1932. Forty percent of the workforce was unemployed, yet company profits remained high. [Fn. omitted.] During the last six months of 1933 alone, eighty-five strikes and protests erupted, several of them directed against the colonial government. In one of those strikes, thousands of sugar workers demanding an eight-hour day rebuffed their own ineffectual leaders and called on Albizu Campos and the Nationalists for help. For the first time, the Nationalists and the labor movement were becoming united. In other parts of the country, picket line violence during walkouts by needleworkers in Lares and Mayaguz left two dead and seventy injured. [Fn. omitted.]

"To stem the anti-Yankee violence, federal agents arrested Campos and several of the party's leaders on sedition charges in 1936. While they were in jail, the youth brigade of the party, the Cadets, scheduled a peaceful march in Ponce to press for their release. Governor Blanton Winship refused at the last moment to issue them a permit, but the Nationalists decided to march anyway.

"The day was Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. My aunt Graciela was sixteen and caught up in the Nationalist fervor at the time. Luckily, she decided to skip the march that day and go on a picnic with her sisters, Ana and Pura. They all trekked up to El Vigia, the magnificent hill top estate of the Serralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distillery. From the rolling castle grounds you can look down on all of Ponce. Pura, who was [a] child at the time, recalls that shortly after the Nationalists gathered, the church bells began to ring, and when she looked down the mountain toward the plaza she saw people scattering in all directions. A young woman tey knew ran up to them, screaming, 'There's a massacre in town. The Nationalists and the soldiers are fighting. The hospital is full of wounded.' When the smoke had cleared, 21 people were dead and 150 were wounded. A human rights commission would later report that all had been gunned down by police. It was the biggest massacre in Puerto Rican history. [Fn. omitted.]

"After the Palm Sunday Massacre, hysteria and near civil war swept the island. Nationalists were hunted and arrested on sight. Some headed for exile in New York City or Havana. Graciela, our family's only Nationalist Party member, decided that nothing could be won by fighting the Americans. With Albizu Campos in jail and the Nationalist ranks decimated, she abandoned the party.

"By the early 1940's, my grandmother Maria managed to reunited the family. Her children were grown up by then, and the outbreak of World War II had made jobs more plentiful. My father, Pepe, enlisted in the all-Puerto-Rican sixty-fifth Infantry and served with the regiment in North Africa, France, and Germany. His brothers, Sergio and Tomas, were drafted a year later.

"The Puerto Ricans of the sixty-fifth were segregated from the other American soldiers throughout the war and assigned largely to support work for combat units. Because they spoke no English, they found themselves frequently ridiculed by their fellow GIs. Beyond the prejudice they faced, they were deeply shaken by the devastated countryside of southern France and Germany, which reminded them of the lush green hills of Puerto Rico. Displaced French farmers became haunting reminders of their own destitute jibaro countrymen. The war transformed not only the Gonzalez brothers, but also every Puerto Rican who participated in it. For the first time they had fought in defense of a country they knew nothing about. Nonetheless, the veterans returned home, like their Mexican American counterparts, believing they had earned a place at the American table; for the first time, they felt like citizens.

"While Maria Gonzalez's three sons were away at war, their army paychecks pulled the family out of poverty. But the retuning Gonzalez brothers found the island nearly as poor as they'd left it. As soon as he got back, Pepe married my mother, Florinda, an orphan whose mother had died giving birth to her, and whose father had gone off one day to work in the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic and never returned, leaving her and her older brothers to be raised by their grandmother.

"The postwar period, however, brought rapid change. In 1946, President Truman appointed the first Puerto Rican governor of the island, Jesus Pinero. Soon afterward, on December 15, 1947, Pdero Albizu Campos returned home after serving ten years in federal custody for his sedition conviction. Thousands of Nationalists greeted him at the airport as a returning hero. 'The hour of decion has arrived.' Albizu Campos warned his followers. [Fn. omitted.] As the Nationalist Party and the U.S. government hurtled toward a final bloody confrontation, the Gonzalez family and thousands of others packed their bags and headed for New York."

Discussion Questions
  1. There are many names and dates in this piece, and I have just dumped you right into the middle of the book. What reading techniques will help you get through this without getting lost?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    First, bear in mind that it's an excerpt. Read it for the sense that the excerpt gives, and don't worry if you can't keep all the names straight. Neither can I. Read for the feeling of what it must have felt like to be a Puerto Rican caught up in this story. That's why Gonzalez includes the story, to give us a sense of who the Other is in the case of Latin Americans from Puerto Rico.

  2. What are the differences Gonzalez explains amongst the Puerto Ricans?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    By the third paragraph of this excerpt Gonzalez is talking about the "criollos" and the "peninsulares." The criollos were the elite of the indigenous peoples. But Sapin would never grant them equal representation in the Spanish government, because Spain was afraid there were too many of them, and they might revolt. On the other hand, the "peninsulares" were the ones who had received land grants, many of them as the result of having served in Spain's conquering armies. When the peninsulares arrived in Puerto Rico, often from neighboring islands and countries, they had their original estate of land to finance the buying of Puerto Rican land. The criollos, without such wealth, were displaced from their lands and forced to work as proletarian labor for what were most often hopelessly inadequate wages.

    As you see in the Gonzalez family story, families were torn by the various loyalties. These were not easy questions to answer, especially with US interference on the part of US investment. When US investors moved onto the island, their interests protected by US soldiers, they, like the earlier peninsulares, bought up all the land for their sugar plantations. Thus each group was displaced as a group with more power came along. This led to unspeakable poverty for the indigenous peoples.

  3. Given the story of the Gonzalez family and our discussions, can you understand why Andre Gunnar Frank spoke of the "rape" of Latin America?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    Consider the extent to which military and financial power dictate who shall profit from the country's resources, and consider what happens to the indigenous peoples in the process.

  4. Can you understand why the Kansas City Star called Harvest of Empire "Required reading, not simply for Latinos but for everyone." ?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    Juan Gonzalez himself answered this, on p. xix:

  5. Does the colonial treatment of Puerto Rico constitute a crime?

    jeanne's lecture notes on one plausible answer:

    Recognize here the importance of the social definition of crime.

    "the American people still cling to a basic sense of fairness, that once they understand the facts, they rarely permit injustice to stand . . ."